Why all reviews are personal, subject to dispute, sometimes not worth the space they are typed on, and how I try to justify my less than critical viewpoint.
I describe myself as a rather uncritical reader; if I like the book enough to continue to the end, it is because the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end and characters who are worth knowing. I read a lot of police procedurals and it is no secret that police life and investigations in the real world are boring and without interest to just about anyone. When authors can take the excruciatingly boring and make it so interesting that I can’t put the book down, that is an author worth reading.
Naturally, I like some books and some authors more than others but generally I don’t try to make comparisons when I post because that might discourage readers from trying out an author and making their own decisions about the quality of the experience.
As an example, there are wonderful police procedurals set in Italy but I can’t imagine trying to compare one to another. I have read all the books written by Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, and Michael Dibdin. I have enjoyed the settings and the atmosphere of all the locations they use. Leon’s Guido Brunetti is a family man living and working in Venice; the characters are wonderful, the stories are more than good, and the idea of Venice caps off the experience. Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano has a long distance relationship with a woman in northern Italy though he lives and works in Sicily, an area some northern Italians don’t recognize as being part of Italy. No one, no matter how familiar with Sicily, would recognize Montalbano’s town of Vigata because it doesn’t exist outside the pages of the book. Dibden’s Aurelio Zen is a member of the force that covers major crimes throughout the country. Zen was born and raised in Venice but he couldn’t be more different than Brunetti. Dibden’s stories are darker than Camilleri’s and Leon’s and that applies to the characters as well as the story. Zen doesn’t have the ties to people and community that the other two characters have. He is far more cynical than Guido or Salvo. Camilleri includes some very funny dialogue. I don’t think Dibdin gives Zen the opportunity for a chuckle in any of the stories. I find it impossible to compare these authors or their characters; each is appealing for different reasons.
I know that no book is perfect so when I am reading I am not looking for mistakes or serious flaws. Sometimes mistakes can be the fault of a poor editor but the author gets the blame. I read primarily for the story which is a wonderful luxury after all the years of reading for facts and details. And everyone writes a lot better than I do.
When I find writers who draw me into their imaginary worlds, I keep in mind that I am a guest. I trust the author to offer me enough information about the world they have created that I can feel a part of it. This is why I don’t read James Joyce. If a reader trusts that Joyce will be clear about more than the pubs to be visited on June 16, they are mostly out of luck. When I learn that a favorite author is about to release a new book, I pre-order it because I trust the author’s ability to tell a good story based on previous experience.
Trust is generally defined as the confident expectation of something. I know that the author of a mystery is creating fictional lives and fictional interpretations of real places or even creating places that are purely imaginative. I cannot and would not want to find Salvo Montalbano’s town on Google Earth. Man and town are the constructs of a gifted, creative writer. I trust the Camilleri isn’t going to suddenly assign Salvo to Florence. That would spoil the fun.
So, I review books I like or books I feel compelled to read because the author has created something I want/need to explore. There are various types of books I don’t review because they aren’t part of the “type” of mystery I like to read. I have never been hunting, fishing or camping so I wouldn’t be a fair judge of a story in those elements. I do read any mystery I come across that has something to do with an art museum. I am a fan of mysteries set in the Roman Empire, not so crazy about those set in the British Empire.
To be fair to an author and to those who read a review I post, I have to like the book. I did make something of an exception on one book I reviewed but I did think that author was capitalizing on his reputation. Someone whose opinion I trust, commented that I hadn’t used one positive adjective. I didn’t realize that until it was pointed out but I was being honest. Most authors aren’t trying to fool readers into expecting something they can’t deliver. Not all authors are created equal but as long as they make an effort to engage and entertain the reader, they deserve to be read with fairness and an open-mind.
So, I review books I like and I don’t review books I don’t like or books that are far outside my experience. I’ll review a book that has characters sitting by the ocean but not one that has characters locked in deadly combat under the sea with oxygen tanks that are almost empty.